Publication date: 17 April 2023
On 13 July 2003, I attended the first meeting of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), the interim authority established under US occupation. At that time, I was an adviser to Dr Mowafak al Rubaie, a former Islamic Dawa Party leader and prominent independent exile, who had recently returned from the UK and had been nominated as a member of the IGC. The meeting took place in a building I knew very well: the annex of the Ministry of Military Industry in central Baghdad (in the area that came to be known as the Green Zone). I had regularly attended meetings at this same building in the 1990s, when I held the rank of brigadier general and, for more than 10 years, served as director of research and development in one of the ministry’s facilities.
Then I fell under suspicion. I was investigated on the charge of ‘not informing the security authorities about family members in the opposition’, and Saddam Hussein’s government terminated my position in April 2000. As was common practice at the time, the government transferred me to a less important position in the Ministry of Defence, while keeping me indefinitely under security watch.
In the summer of 2003, I met Iraq’s new leaders for the first time. All the Iraqis and Americans attending the IGC meeting shared a lot of hope and optimism. I overheard many of the participants talking about the historical juncture we were experiencing as a foundational moment of state reform or state-building. However, none of those hopes materialized in the following years – particularly in the security sector. The US’s disastrous decision to disband Iraq’s military in 2003 set the stage for failure. The behaviour of Iraq’s first leaders compounded this fundamental error with a mix of fractiousness, ignorance and paranoia. Iraqi politicians never reached a consensus vision for the country’s security sector. The most powerful decision-makers tended to view the Iraqi armed forces as a potential source of authoritarianism, rather than as an asset to protect the nation from threats. Moreover, structurally weak civilian leadership, poor governance and corruption affected all Iraqi institutions, hitting the security sector especially hard. Taken together, these factors have created two decades of recurring, failed security reform efforts that have produced a fragmented, hobbled security sector in Iraq.
A few days after the first meeting of the IGC, conversation at lunch turned to the future of Iraq’s security sector. One prominent governing council member said the new Iraq should have a small defence army of three divisions, located in northern, central and southern Iraq respectively. No one opposed this idea. For a person like me with a military background, it was puzzling, or downright foolish, to believe that only three divisions could secure a country as big as Iraq from its considerable internal and external security threats. Later, I found that many of the returned exiles had given little thought to the future of the country’s security services. They disagreed widely among themselves. Because of painful personal experience, they primarily thought of security institutions as tools of internal repression. They wanted to limit future abuses of power. This concern – amplified by fears of the future held most deeply by Kurds and Sunni Arabs – hampered security sector reform efforts from the start, and it continues to present an obstacle to this day.
These vague visions of Iraq’s future security sector, distorted by past fears, compelled most of the new Iraqi leaders to support the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)’s strategic blunder of dismantling the old Iraqi armed forces and security services. One of the governing council’s prominent leaders boasted that he had advised the Americans to dismantle all the old security services, arguing that they were the apparatus of Saddam’s power, and they could in the future serve as the apparatus of power to a new dictator. This IGC member believed it would be to the country’s benefit to spend many years building new military and intelligence services. ‘That will give us time to consolidate the new democratic government,’ the member declared. In my view, the exact opposite was true – the security vacuum posed a direct threat to our nascent democracy. Yet for the founders of Iraq’s post-2003 order, fear of a strong military outweighed any interest in creating strong security institutions. Encouraged by some Iraqi leaders and their fears of another Saddam Hussein, the US chose a radical path to security sector reform that created a large cohort of newly disaffected former soldiers; this also resulted in a pervasive security vacuum that proved to be the greatest challenge of all to security sector reform.
The CPA adopted two mitigating measures to try to address the security vacuum. First, it excluded the Iraqi police and the Ministry of the Interior from the decision to disband the military and security services. Second, it created the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), an armed formation consisting of locally recruited small units that operated under the command of US forces in Iraq. The US occupation authority committed strictly to the principle that local communities would provide recruits to the Iraqi police and the ICDC, and that these locals would not deploy outside their own areas. This approach represented a fatal lack of understanding of Iraqi society. Police and civil defence were enmeshed in local dynamics and used their position and power to engage in corrupt practices. They also readily neglected their duties in favour of their social and tribal ties. Unfortunately, the principle of localism for police was enshrined in the constitution, and successive Iraqi governments have struggled with the negative consequences.
Troop numbers, not security institutions
US domestic politics also played a critical role in Iraq’s security sector failures. The White House wanted a hasty exit from Iraq and pressured military commanders to reduce the number of US troops deployed, while increasing the number of trained Iraqi troops – with absolutely no concern for the real capabilities of those forces and the consequences for security in Iraq. This policy required the rapid formation of Iraqi forces that could replace US troops (at least on paper), and disastrously shifted the focus to padding the membership rolls of security forces rather than building effective security institutions. This approach prioritized force size over building institutions that could effectively govern the growing security forces.
For example, within months of launching the ICDC in the summer of 2003, US officials decided to expand its size from the original planned 18 battalions to 65 battalions. In response to the deteriorating security conditions, the Iraqi government and the US military command in Iraq repeated the same failed course of action in following years. Since 2005, the institutions of civilian oversight in Iraq have not kept pace with the growing ranks of troops and security sector formations.
The rapid increase in forces also came at the cost of inadequate training (typically lasting just one to three weeks) and poor vetting (or no vetting at all sometimes). These factors contributed heavily to the disastrous performance as the ICDC showed that it had no combat capability and was thoroughly penetrated by insurgents. The failures led to the disbanding of the ICDC, after which its personnel were properly vetted, trained and reinstated in the Iraqi Army in mid-2004.
In addition, the principles of ‘civilian oversight’ and the ‘representation of all Iraqi communities in the security sector’ have been misused and abused by Iraqi political powers to extend their influence and hegemony in security sector institutions. The IGC’s initial difficult discussions to nominate ministers, their deputies and senior officials ended by agreement on a partisan quota system; political patronage in turn staffed the security sector with some unqualified and corrupt officers in leadership positions. Ministries tended to be comprised of a cast of competing senior officials, many of whom were part of the patronage system, and who battled for power with the state’s legitimate bureaucracy. In some cases, these patronage systems funnelled resources to political figures and parties as well as corrupt senior officials.
As a result, senior staff often were not qualified for their positions, and different directorates within each ministry struggled to cooperate. The situation was exacerbated by Iraq’s constitution, which requires parliamentary approval for the appointment of ministers, deputy ministers, division commanders and equivalent posts – making it harder for qualified individuals to be approved for these roles. Both prime ministers Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi sought to decrease political interference in security sector institutions, for example by appointing acting leaders to circumvent the constitutional requirement for parliamentary approval. However, increased executive power has not necessarily produced better results. For instance, at the end of 2011, following the withdrawal of US forces, the patronage process essentially governed the selection of senior officials and leaders, which further weakened the official leadership of the ministries of defence and interior. This unprofessional process led to the disaster of the fall of Mosul in 2014. The succession of weak prime ministers since 2014 threatens to return Iraq to a situation in which political parties intervene directly in the security sector, further entrenching it in the patronage network.
Is reform possible?
In 2017–18, Iraq’s national security adviser tasked me with drafting a security sector reform strategy, at the behest of the prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. In order to ensure that all the institutions involved contributed closely to the drafting of the strategy, I insisted that the members of the project team should represent each institution and be close to their respective heads, with at least the rank of general for those from the military and police, and the equivalent for civilians. We understood that producing a comprehensive strategy would be much easier than convincing the government to implement it.
The first difficulty expected was reluctance from inside the institutions. Reforms create winners and losers – thus, to be successful, leaders in every ministry or institution need to supervise the implementation of reforms to best overcome reluctance from within their own ranks. When we presented our strategy to the National Security Council, we recommended that the deputy head of each institution concerned take charge of implementation. We also recommended the establishment of a joint follow-up team to report on progress to the National Security Council. The council approved our strategy and recommendations.
The second obstacle we anticipated was opposition from some political parties. Security sector reforms touch on issues of division of power, and thus demand close cooperation with local elites. We suggested that the prime minister present our reform plan to the Council of Ministers, which he did. We hoped the council’s approval would lead to buy-in from Iraq’s political parties. There was also wide international support from the UN and the EU.
However, this early success was not enough to implement our plan for security sector reform. Initial progress was slow, and it has almost completely halted since the 2018 election and the ongoing succession of political crises.
A few months ago, I found myself in a conversation about national security and security sector reform alongside one of the few Iraqi politicians whose intellect I admire. I argued that security reform is ultimately a political act, requiring a strong government with the political will to start and sustain reforms. In our current state of continual political crises and weak governments, we can only hope for minimal, partial reforms. This politician pointed out that in the early years after 2003, thinking on the problem of security reform was distorted by the fears and fragmented visions of former allies in the opposition. Today, Iraq’s situation is far more complex and perilous. There are real violent threats, foreign and domestic. Meanwhile, new players in Iraq do not want to lose their power; they mistrust their partners and have not yet committed to the rules of democracy. For example, some members of parliament are affiliated with militias and thus seem unlikely to help resolve the militias problem.
Security sector reform can only be carried out as part of long-term broader political restructuring. Short-term solutions escalate the risks in Iraq’s fragile, crisis-prone system. Security sector reform requires a long-term strategy, with political confidence-building measures, assurances of security, and economic alternatives for the many factions that can disrupt progress.